A career destined to end in tears: why the keeper of the party's conscience had to go

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When Tony Blair was elected Labour leader in 1994, Clare Short's private reaction was: "My God, what have we done?" But despite her reservations, she grew to respect Mr Blair, who was happier to have the firebrand MP for Birmingham Ladywood inside his Shadow Cabinet and then Cabinet rather than outside it.

When Tony Blair was elected Labour leader in 1994, Clare Short's private reaction was: "My God, what have we done?" But despite her reservations, she grew to respect Mr Blair, who was happier to have the firebrand MP for Birmingham Ladywood inside his Shadow Cabinet and then Cabinet rather than outside it.

Now events have turned full circle. Ms Short has lost her respect for Mr Blair, convinced that he has broken his promise to her that the United Nations would play a big role in post-war Iraq. Her simmering discontent at his top-down style of government boiled over into yesterday's devastating personal attack on Mr Blair in her resignation statement in the Commons.

The Prime Minister, who had already seen Robin Cook walk out of his Cabinet, did not want to lose Ms Short before the Iraq war. If she had quit then, the rebellion by 139 Labour MPs against military action could have been even bigger. Yesterday morning, Mr Blair could feel relatively sanguine at her decision to jump before she was pushed out in the reshuffle he will organise in the next few weeks.

But after praising her for doing an "excellent job" as International Development Secretary, Mr Blair would not have expected or enjoyed a full-frontal attack from someone who, after all, he has kept at his cabinet table for six years. Her parting tirade also switched the spotlight from the UN's role in Iraq to the issue of Mr Blair's leadership and style of government.

While in the Cabinet, Ms Short was seen as keeper of the Labour Party's conscience. But by failing to carry out her threat to resign after calling Mr Blair's Iraq strategy "reckless", she forfeited the role and was viewed as a careerist traitor by many of her natural allies. "She committed political suicide; she shot herself in the left foot and right foot at the same time," one minister said yesterday.

Last night ministers hit back at her farewell blast as "over the top" and said it would have carried much more weight – and posed more of a threat to Mr Blair – if she had resigned before the war. In the Westminster village her stock has been diminished by her vacillation over Iraq.

Some aides urged Mr Blair to sack her immediately after her "reckless" attack to uphold the rules of collective cabinet responsibility. But wiser heads prevailed. "Tony played her like a fish; once she was hooked, she was our prisoner," said one aide.

When military action was inevitable, Ms Short agonised about whether to go or stay. Gordon Brown worked overtime to persuade his closest cabinet ally to remain, arguing that she would have a crucial role to play in post-war Iraq, and probably tipped the balance in her decision.

In a series of one-to-one meetings with Mr Blair, the International Development Secretary raised three issues: the Middle East peace process, a UN mandate for military action and the UN's role after the conflict. Although there was no new UN resolution, she was satisfied that there was legal authority under previous ones. Despite raising the hopes of anti-war MPs, she was never against military action in principle.

Although left-wing MPs believe Ms Short should have resigned then, she insisted yesterday that she had carried on because Mr Blair asked her to. If she had been a "populist", she would have quit then. She said: "I wasn't clinging on. It was hard to stay ... It was very unpopular. I have had a nasty time. But I still think it was the right thing and I have tried my best. But now I am at the end of the line. What they [the Government] are doing, I can't defend, I am ashamed of it."

Mr Blair had probably decided to sack Ms Short before her rather strange behaviour last week, when she failed to turn up for a crucial Commons vote on foundation hospitals and to the Cabinet's weekly meeting, when the Prime Minister showed he thought she was losing it by making a circular movement with fingers near his head.

Yesterday Ms Short insisted she was "not playing games" and had genuine reasons for missing both events. However, she admitted she did not like the proposed foundation hospitals, was "uncomfortable" with many things the Government was doing and was "feeling pretty worried and fed up" at the way Britain and America were planning to run Iraq.

The conflict in Iraq was always likely to be a flashpoint for Ms Short, who had resigned from Neil Kinnock's front bench over the 1991 Gulf War (and, on another occasion, over the Prevention of Terrorism Act).

She attacked Mr Blair's spin doctors as "people who live in the dark" and, in a foretaste of yesterday's attack, she said in 1996: "The obsession with the media and focus groups is making us look as if we want power at any price and don't stand for anything."

But she decided she could "work with this guy". In turn, Mr Blair tolerated her occasional outbursts. In 1997, he helped to get her out of hot water after a late-night incident at Labour's annual conference that could have cost her her cabinet job.

As senior civil servant at the Home Office, in 1981 she married Alex Lyon, a Home Office minister she met there. He lost his seat at York in 1983 just as she won hers in Birmingham. Mr Lyon died 10 years later after developing Alzheimer's disease.

In 1996, Ms Short rediscovered her son, Toby Young, a City solicitor, who had been given up for adoption during her first marriage at 18 to a fellow Keele student.

Called a "serial resigner", Ms Short served in several frontbench positions under Mr Kinnock and Mr Blair. A natural rebel who was never without a cause, she is thought to be the only member of Mr Blair's Cabinet who did not vote for him and his predecessors in party leadership elections, preferring the left-wing candidates – even when Tony Benn challenged Mr Kinnock in 1988. Her volatile temperament, no-nonsense approach and desire to speak her mind sat uneasily with New Labour and made it unlikely that she would take naturally to the constraints of government.

That changed after Mr Blair moved her from the sensitive transport brief to opposition spokesman on overseas development, where she was a round peg in a round hole and found her mission in life. A beefed-up Department for International Development was set up when Labour won power in 1997 and, through her close alliance with Mr Brown, she managed to double her budget (making clear to Mr Blair that she would resign if she did not get her way). She won generous plaudits from aid agencies yesterday for putting development issues firmly on the map.

The affection for her throughout the party allowed her to get away with mistakes, as when in 1998 she said the islanders of Montserrat would be "wanting golden elephants next" as she rejected their demands after a volcano.

As she recalled yesterday, she "loved" her job and her department, and most of her officials felt the same about her. "She was a great leader and she will be missed," said John Hudson, who works in the policy division. "Clare was a powerful advocate for development. She was strong, enthusiastic and determined. She really cares seriously about development."

Yet there was another side to her. "She thought she was irreplaceable," said George Foulkes, who served as her deputy at the department. Her disdain for the protocol of ministerial life was evident yesterday, when she called Mr Blair out of the blue at around 10am and then jumped the gun by announcing her resignation before Downing Street could. Number 10 press officers were besieged with media calls before they had been told of Ms Short's decision.

Although the Prime Minister told her yesterday he was sad she was going, it was significant that he did not try to talk her out of it. The die had been cast some weeks ago, as Mr Blair showed by rushing out after only 25 minutes the announcement that Baroness Amos would succeed Ms Short. While Mr Blair's official spokesman praised her record, he could not say that the Prime Minister regretted her decision to quit.

One person more sad to see her depart than Mr Blair was Mr Brown. On Sunday, the Chancellor heaped praise on Ms Short, telling GMTV that she had done "a very important job", had "led the way" on debt relief and that her department was seen round the world as pioneering new methods of helping Third World countries. Yesterday, she was given a public kiss in the Commons chamber as she prepared to make her resignation speech by Ann Keen, Mr Brown's parliamentary private secretary.

Although Ms Short is 57, this is not necessarily the end of her cabinet career. Reports reached Downing Street last year that she fancied the roles of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary if Mr Brown succeeded Mr Blair. Premier Brown might well be tempted to bring her back, albeit in a rather less exalted position.

COUNTDOWN TO A RESIGNATION

9 March 2003: Clare Short says she will resign if Tony Blair goes to war without a new UN mandate. She says he is "extraordinarily reckless" with global security and his future as Prime Minister. Asked if she would consider resignation if there was no new UN resolution, she replies: "Absolutely: there's no question about that."

10 March: Tony Blair's close allies hit back. One source called her attack "an act of treachery".

13 March: Robin Cook suggests he too will resign if Britain goes to war without a UN mandate.

14 March: Ms Short says she is feeling "more optimistic" about Iraq after talks with the Prime Minister.

17 March: Mr Cook leaves the Cabinet because of the lack of "broad international support".

March 18: Ms Short announces she will stay, but she was still "very critical" of Mr Blair's policy. She says quitting would be "cowardly", and Mr Blair had told her he wanted her to "stay for the reconstruction of Iraq".

11 April: Ms Short refuses to say Britain was right to go to war and appears to criticise troops for failing to make a "bigger effort" to end looting.

15 April: She says the "death of a human being" was not a "price worth paying" for toppling Saddam Hussein.

7 May: Ms Short misses a vote supporting Government's flagship scheme for foundation hospitals.

8 May: She misses the weekly cabinet meeting.

9 May: A Blair aide says: "She has given up. She has shot herself in the foot. No one else has shot her."

12 May: Ms Short departs, with a devastating indictment of Mr Blair and his style of government.

Paul Peachey

'I am sad and sorry that it has ended like this'

Dear Tony,

I have decided that I must leave the Government.

As you know, I thought the run-up to the conflict in Iraq was mishandled, but I agreed to stay in the Government to help support the reconstruction effort for the people of Iraq.

I am afraid that the assurances you gave me about the need for a UN mandate to establish a legitimate Iraqi government have been breached. The Security Council resolution that you and Jack have so secretly negotiated contradicts the assurances I have given in the House of Commons and elsewhere about the legal authority of the occupying powers, and the need for a UN-led process to establish a legitimate Iraqi government. This makes my position impossible.

It has been a great honour for me to have led the establishment and development of the Department for International Development over the past six years. I am proud of what we have achieved and much else that the Government has done.

I am sad and sorry that it has ended like this.

Yours Clare

Dear Clare,

Thank you for your letter of resignation from the Government. As you know, I believe you have done an excellent job in the Department, which has the deserved reputation as one of the best such departments anywhere in the world. That is in no small measure down to you. Our record on aid and development is one of the Government's proudest achievements and I would like to thank you for your role in bringing that about.

I know you have had doubts about the Government's position on Iraq, but I was pleased you stayed to support the Government during this military conflict. Had you stayed on, there was clearly an important job to be done in the continuing efforts to bring about the reconstruction of Iraq. My commitment to that effort remains as strong as ever.

I am afraid I do not understand your point about the UN. We are in the process of negotiating the UN resolution at the moment. And the agreement on this resolution with our American and Spanish partners has scarcely been a secret.

As for who should lead the process of reconstruction, I have always been clear that this is not a matter of the UN leading or the coalition leading. The two should work together. That is exactly what the resolution stipulates.

Yours ever, Tony

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